Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part I, On Theological Education

As one whose vocation concerns the formation of ministers, I am for ever on the lookout for resources that assist in this task. One such book is Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery. Rather than write a review of it (Want a review? Just read the book! Repeat: Read the book! There you go), I thought I’d simply post a few of my favourite sections of it over the next week or so. It won’t and it can’t substitute for reading the book, and isolating snippets out of a novel and its narrative is frightfully problematic, but it may at least help to introduce the book to those unfamiliar with it, and, even without wider narrative-bearings, encourage some fruitful thought. So here we go:

‘Exactly why I had arrived at my first call with such a developed sense of entitlement, I’m not sure’. (p. 12)

‘I didn’t ride through eight years of education on a crisis, nor did my co-travelers in the System. We put one foot ahead of another as if following snowprints through a Wisconsin woods, but with no horizon in view. Some of us emerged from the journey open to new learning and experience, and some fancied ourselves as completed ministers of the gospel. But all of us were missing something. Our education taught us to speak the System’s language, but it did not disclose the language that “speaks us” by possessing our spirit and shaping us as human beings. It is not a question of how did we survive the voyage. Surely, at one time or another every boy in that school must have fought through a crisis as quietly as I did mine. The real question is, how did those long years open a path to ministry?

There’s a New Yorker cartoon in which a pompous-looking doctor hands a prescription to his patient and says, “Take this. It will either cure you or kill you.” I’m afraid my education was something like that. It didn’t attend to the gifts of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, and long-suffering. It did not help me develop Jesus’ instinct for compassion toward the outsider or outrage toward injustice. Our professors didn’t invite us into the agony of race or war; they never intimated that God could grieve over the poor or that Jesus really cared about the fate of women. Perhaps it was the substructure of Greek humanism that kept us to the middle way, which caused us to overlook God’s grief and anger and the essential excesses of Christianity.

The spirituality imparted to us was the safe spirituality of structure but not of passion or abandonment. The theological categories we memorized would either stifle true spirituality for the rest of our lives or provide the skeleton for a growing and adapting organism.”We’ve given you a vocabulary,” my teachers seemed to say, “Now, what are you going to do with it?

Likewise, the enforced chapel services into which we dutifully filed morning and evening could either kill you or make you well. If you paid too much attention to the sermons of Dean Axelmann and others, you might die in the spirit. But we also sang Matins every morning, and four hundred male voices chanting the Te Deum couldn’t be wrong:

To You all angels cry aloud,
The heavens and all the powers therein.
To You cherubim and seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth!

Take that prescription five mornings a week for eight years, and it just might save your life’. (pp. 36–7)

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